AN URGENT medical assessment is being carried out at Cairns Hospital on a Queensland woman showing possible symptoms of the Ebola virus.
The state’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jeanette Young, said the 57-year-old nurse had returned to Australia on Tuesday after spending a month working at an Ebola hospital in Sierra Leone.
The woman has been identified as Red Cross volunteer Sue Ellen Kovack.
Ms Kovack remains in good spirits, the head of the Australian Red Cross says.
Australian Red Cross Head of International Program Peter Walton on Thursday said Ms Kovack remained upbeat despite her situation.
“She’s doing well, but obviously she just has to play a bit of a waiting game at the moment,” Mr Walton said.
Ms Kovack returned home to Cairns on Tuesday, where she remained in quarantine as per normal protocol.
On Thursday, she was admitted to hospital with a “low-grade fever”, with results of tests expected to be known by Thursday night or early Friday.
Mr Walton said it was vital Red Cross aid workers were available to help combat the Ebola crisis, but everything possible was done to reduce the risk to them.
“It’s a tribute to the bravery and courage of many health workers and aid workers that they do go to very difficult environments,” he said.
“We do all we can to mitigate all the risks attached to that.
“But certainly given a situation and an epidemic such as Ebola, it’s absolutely imperative that we do our part to try to contain it.”
He said Ms Kovack was well-regarded and had followed stringent isolation procedures on returning from west Africa a week ago.
“She went over to west Africa as a clinical nurse, and very well-regarded professional in that regard,” Mr Walton told reporters.
“I think it’s a tribute to her professionalism that she has followed that to the ledger of the guidelines, and hence why she presented to Queensland Health authorities.”
All aid workers that return to Australia, including those on Ms Kovack’s program, were required to present to a local health authority before going into 21 days of isolation where they monitored their own symptoms, he said.
“With Ebola, it does require a display of symptoms before there is any risk of an infection at all,” Mr Walton said.
“Once again may I stress the spread of Ebola is through bodily fluids. You cannot catch it through coughing or sneezing.
“So the risk to the community and the risk indeed to this aid worker are still low.”
Dr Young meanwhile said a sample of the woman’s blood was being rushed from Cairns to Brisbane to be tested for the virus.
“(When) she came back into the country, she was perfectly well,” Dr Young said in a press conference this afternoon.
“She hasn’t been out in the community at Cairns, she’s been isolated in her own home, testing herself homeisolated in her own home, testing herself.
“It wasn’t until this morning that she felt unwell. She rang up because developed a low grade fever of 37.6 degrees … that’s low grade we felt it important to come into hospital. We don’t know if she has (Ebola) but she has been exposed to people with the disease.”
Dr Young said it was virtually impossible for the nurse to have infected members of the public, including fellow passengers on her flight home.
Unlike the flu, Ebola was “not highly contagious as it cannot be caught through coughing or sneezing”.
“The community has absolutely nothing to worry about because the Ebola virus is very difficult to transmit — you need to be exposed to secretions such as vomit, diarrhoea or blood and she doesn’t have any symptoms,” she said. “There is absolutely no concern for any passenger on that plane, there is no risk to anyone on that plane.”
However, the nurse has a flatmate, who is being monitored for symptoms of the disease.
Dr Young said it was protocol for the nurse to be in home isolation for 21 days and checking her temperature twice a day because she had been working in West Africa.
Dr Young said the woman had done media interviews before she travelled there.
“I think she’s an amazing lady to go to West Africa and provide that service,” she said.
“Importantly, she has reported that while in Sierra Leone strict Personal Protective Equipment procedures were followed at all times and were not breached at any stage.
“However, as her temperature does demonstrate a low-grade fever which can be symptomatic of Ebola virus disease, all necessary precautions are being taken.”
Dr Young stressed that the public would not be at risk if the woman did test positive for Ebola.
“While Ebola is a very serious disease, it is not highly contagious as it cannot be caught through coughing or sneezing; a person is not infectious until they are unwell with the disease,” she said.
Federal MP Bob Katter says Kovack has put the nation at risk because of her humanitarian ambitions.
The outspoken MP, whose electorate of Kennedy includes the southern area of Cairns and the Cairns airport, has slammed quarantine authorities.
Mr Katter said it was “unbelievable and incomprehensive” how a person could get into Australia from an Ebola infected country.
“There cannot be any compromise with this,” Mr Katter said.
“If you want to go to one of these countries, however laudable your motivation, I am sorry but when you return to Australia, you must be quarantined for three weeks – not home quarantined.”
Mr Katter said Australian aid workers travelling to west Africa, including Ms Kovack, were putting Australia at risk.
“We love these people, and we honour these Australians for being self-sacrificing, but compared to the risk they create for our country, it is not remotely comparable. One person’s moral and humanitarian ambitions are being carried out at a very grave cost to Australia.”
Health Minister Peter Dutton insists that talking to people arriving from Ebola hit countries is the best screening method for the deadly disease at the moment.
He moved to ally fears as a Cairns nurse is being tested for Ebola virus after travelling to Africa to help treat people infected with the deadly disease.
Mr Dutton says doctors believe the best method for now is to identify and contact people arriving from the Ebola-stricken countries.
“I think that’s the more effective screening process at the moment, but these things evolve,” he told the ABC.
Introducing a screening in arrivals halls could be problematic, he said.
“It provides a sort of air of complacency if you like,” he told the ABC.
“So people come through, they feel unwell a couple of days later and they think ‘no, no, I’ve just been through that screening process and I wasn’t picked up, I’m ok’.”
Mr Dutton reiterated that the World Health Organisation has not asked Australia for on the ground health workers in the stricken African countries.
But he said that advice may change over time.
Australia will send help if a case presents in the region, for example in PNG, the minister says.
“We would be expected within our region to rapidly respond, and we have the capacity to do that with a team out of Darwin … and resources within Canberra.”
– with AAP